Unmistakable in the crowd, Arinze thrills his fans and critics with equal ecstasy. Born to a Yoruba father and an Igbo mother, the Nollywood superstar who hails from Badagry, Lagos State, also speaks in tongues: he speaks Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba. The multi-talented artiste, who is a former President of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, in this interview with Oge Ezeliora, talks about his failed marriage with Ann Njemanze, his new wife, kids and fashion.
Many people believe you are a bad guy because of the scary movies you always star in. What is your take on this?
Well, if many people think that I am bad by virtue of the role I play, then it’s a total misconception. There is always a difference between the character you play and who you are in real life. I am a very simple person; I like simplicity and I like to take things easy. I like humour a lot. I am also a serious-minded person.
If you are that “simple” in real life as you said, how come you are able to perfectly put up such menacing acts in movies?
My training as an actor requires that you just do your job. It’s a job. I am what you may call a method actor. I pick up a role having in mind that in life, there are different kinds of characters and you pick up one and say this is how I see this character and I go ahead to recreate the character.
So why do you think producers like that you play the bad guy roles?
Hmmm…first, it has to do with my eyes. I think that when I open them wide enough, it’s got this mean, menacing look when I am playing these roles. But I am not a stuck character. I have always said that Nigerian movie producers and directors always want to feature one in a particular character when they see that you are good at it. Like, they go for Justice Esiri, Olu Jacobs or Pete Edochie, if they are looking for a person to play a chief. Lover-boy roles, they go for Richard Mofe Damijo, Ramsey Nouah, Bob-Manuel, et cetera. An actor needs to break out sometimes and say, ‘I don’t want to do this, I am an actor!’ Granted, there are some roles you may not be suited for, but you can try it. For me, it’s totally unacceptable to be stuck in one role. I am a trained actor and I can fit in anywhere.
It has been said that a lot of mediocrity abound in Nollywood; the movie industry has become an all-comers. What do you think?
Mediocrity is not a birthright of Nollywood alone. You see it in all other professions including yours –journalism. You also find mediocrity in law and medical practice. It’s not the fight for only actors. The marketers, directors and others have a larger share of the blame. I believe with time, we will be able to separate the men from the boys.
Have you had the opportunity to play other roles?
I did in ‘Atlanta’ with Grace Amah. I’ve done ‘Widow’ and people like my character in it. I have played other roles as well like a father, and so on.
Have you ever played a lover-boy role before?
Yes, I have done that with Stella Damascus. I don’t see myself as a stuck actor because it kills you; most especially when you are growing to be a brand. It affects the person especially when a company is looking for whom to work with. We haven’t got to that level yet when people will understand that this person is just doing his job. It has really hurt me in the past as corporate sponsors would say that I do not fit their brand. You can just imagine that. It hurts.
As a multi-talented artiste, what do you think producers need to do to improve on the quality of movies in Nigeria?
Hmm…. So many things! Let me start with the storyline. Script writers should endeavour to think properly and work on the story idea before production. Today, we have so many movies with bad storyline. There are some movies that are not supposed to be shown on Africa Magic. Recently, I ended on the floor, rolling as I laughed my butt out.
I was so angry watching a movie that a girl went blind and her mother paralysed and in order to make ends meet she started to sell recharge cards. Pray, how does she know what denomination of cards to sell being blind!? Na all di kain nonsense dey give Nollywood bad name. A blind girl selling recharge cards? Hiaaaan! God help us! Nollywood needs to improve seriously. If it is possible for the government to invest in the industry, assist producers to come out with something unique. Yes, they should help us. We are no more in the era of when things are bad. Nollywood has expanded to a great extent. So, we should act good quality movies that will give us good names.
Now, when you get a script, what is the first thing you do?
First, I read through it, understand the character, and then decide if I want to play the role or not.
Are you saying that the money offered don’t sometimes entice you into doing a particular movie?
Sometimes, the story is very good and it doesn’t affect the payment. I just do it because I know that if I do it, it will fetch me another job. Sometimes I do it and insist on the payment. If the script is not good, I say it and refuse to do it. Dem no dey kill person put. Abi? I go say I no dey do, na by force? I have turned down so many scripts. This year alone, I have turned down almost 10 scripts.
So, how many movies have you shot this year?
This is so because I didn’t accept all the jobs that came my way. I tell them to send the scripts; I read through them and if I don’t like it, I send it back saying, I don’t like it. You have got to position yourself as an actor. You have got to make a statement; you don’t just act because everyone is acting. I will rather starve to keep my quality but, I know I won’t starve because I know God has blessed me immensely with so much talent. Over-talent dey worry me (laughs). You understand?
And what are these talents?
Voice-over, singing, public relation works, quite a number of them. When it’s time for me to drop a script, I do it.
How expensive are you?
The honest truth is that you can’t place a worth on yourself; there is no price tag. You can never ever get what you are worth but, what you negotiate.
What is the highest pay you have received so far?
I don’t reveal such publicly.
So, would you disclose the lowest you ever received?
No, I won’t. You can use your imagination to know whether I am in the six figure area.
You have knack for voice-over which you do pretty well. When and how did this begin?
Thanks. It was many years back in the late 80’s and early 90s. I used to watch the CNN and listen to radio. I would hear Sony Irabor, Mani Onumonu, Osaze Iyamu, talk. So, I started working with my friends Tunde Ajidejidu, alongside Kingsley Ogoro. Before then though, I did a little of voice training while at the University of Ife.
One day, I told them that I would like to try some voice-overs which I did well. Since then, if anyone came to complain that they didn’t have a voice-over artiste, Kingsley would say ‘Get Segun Arinze then’. It was not for money; it was like that till I met Sony Irabor who was a very big influence; he came to us, wanted a voice-over artiste. I was called and naturally he produced me, telling me how to pronounce words and all that. I was having fun and getting paid at the same time. I did voice-over for this same people I hold in high esteem. I listened to lot of radio to make sure I pronounce the words very well.
Between music and acting which came first?
Both came together.
How do you mean? I remember your album ‘Nwanyi Yanga’, did you start singing before you went into acting?
I have been acting before I even went into music. I was doing stage plays with Anunsa Play House. I was doing something with Tade Ogidan where we did ‘Boys Next Door.’ ‘Nwanyi Yanga’ came out in 1992 and it’s the only album I have done till date.
Well, because I was frustrated out of music then. Also, it was not lucrative as it is now. But, that’s not to say I will want to do an album because it is lucrative. It’s because I feel the need to sing, that’s why I want to do it. I have an album now, released on O’Jez Music label.
Let’s talk about your love life. You were once married to Ann Njemanze (of ‘Domitilla’ fame). What triggered the break-up?
The marriage kaput!
Is that how you are going to put it?
Well, what do you want me to say? It kaput over 10 years ago; time flies – doesn’t it?
What makes a good actor?
What makes a good actor? Talent, first! And being able to adapt and interpret the role you are given. That’s what makes a good actor.
What do you like best about being an actor?
It is the fact that I can live different lives. I can play different roles and in the process learn. For me, it’s a learning process. Every day, you learn different things because the actor is the most powerful man on planet earth. At every point in time, he plays different roles – he can be an engineer; he can be a doctor and he’s learning things. If the script is well researched and well written, you learn a lot of other things as well.
What’s the greatest thing that being an actor has done for you?
The greatest thing that acting has done for me? Well, it’s the platform it has provided for me and for people to see me showcase my talent, tell the world stories in different forms and in different shapes and getting to meet people both high and mighty and at the grass roots. So, that’s it. The most important thing about the actor is telling the truth and believing the truth. The truth is the most important thing for the actor.
Most people attain success in acting but they lose it along the way. Where do you think they normally get it wrong?
Where they get it wrong is when you start being false; when you start pretending to yourself. You can deceive everybody all the time, but you can’t deceive yourself every time. So, when you don’t deceive yourself, when you tell yourself the truth and when you stay above your game, when you try at every point, at every curve, to be relevant, you turn at that curve.
It has elbows and so when you get to that elbow, you need to slow down and manipulate yourself through the elbow and get back on the straight road. So, when you miss that, when you get to the elbow and you get too arrogant, you fall off the cliff. So, you need to keep your head level; you need to be humble and you need to learn. You talk less, you listen more and then it works for you.
What’s the greatest mistake that most actors make?
It is pretending to themselves and living false lives, I think.
You’ve been acting for the past 35 years. What would you say has kept you going?
First and foremost, it is God. Also, my talent; pushing and trying to keep myself relevant and being above board have all helped.
What distinguishes Segun Arinze as an actor; what separates you from the other actors? What separates me?
I guess my style. My own way of doing my own thing that works for me. That’s what separates me from everybody.
How would you describe that style?
I like doing things differently; my own way –sometimes, in a crazy way. I like being mature about how I handle things.
How much of a family man are you?
I am 100 per cent a family man. I love my family. That’s the first and foremost thing.
Tell us about your family?
I’m married to a lovely woman called Julie. I have children.
What are their names?
Em…from my wife (Julie), I have Ayo, Femi and my new baby daughter, Victoria Ejiamatu. And, of course, before then, you know I had a son and then we had Morenike between Ann and me. I also have Ebunoluwa.
Acting has done a lot for you, what has it not done for you?
What has acting not done for me? Hmmm! That’s a very tough question to ask. What has acting not done for me? I think acting has done everything for me. Seriously! To be honest with you, acting has done everything for me because without being an actor, we won’t be having this conversation today. That’s it! So, it’s done everything for me and I thank God.
Away from work, what does Segun Arinze do for relaxation? What keeps you busy when you are not working?
I like listening to a lot of music; I like reading; I like exploring, reading, particularly on the Internet, where you find everything. Researching, asking questions and I like talking politics a lot. I love politics a lot.
You have been noticed to be fashionable. How fashionable are you?
My mood determines that most times. I am choosy about what I wear; what makes me comfortable. I go for quality not quantity. I am not your everyday man-about-town. I pick where I go. I am not particularly a jewellery person but, I wear them sometimes.
How rich are you?
I am comfortable; I worked hard to be where I am today.
Why was your TV show, ‘No-Holds-Barred’ taken off air?
Politics affected it; I guess I wasn’t mature enough to know the intricacies of doing a talk show. I understand better now. I am not talking about the content but the behind-the-scene events. A lot of people were not too happy with it because they thought I was hitting too hard, even from the top. I guess I got into trouble after I interviewed Asari Dokubo in 2005. I am very equipped now and we would be coming out soon.